Switzerland-headed specialty chemicals major Clariant International Ltd has held a groundbreaking ceremony in Romania to mark the official construction start of the first large-scale commercial "sunliquid" plant for the production of cellulosic ethanol made from agricultural residues. Attended by around 100 invited guests, the event was officiated by representatives of the Romanian government, the Swiss Ambassador along with other officials and dignitaries.
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Held in Podari near Craiova in southwestern Romania the plant is being built on a brownfield site of a former sugar plant. The realization of the plant represents the biggest industrial commitment by an international corporation in the Craiova region, which was duly noted by the Swiss Ambassador H.E. Urs Herren in his address. Although Switzerland ranks among the top foreign investors in Romania, the project also marks Clariant’s first venture in Romania – Clariant Products Ro SRL.
The project also receives funding from two European Union (EU) research programmes that Clariant is a partner in; SUNLIQUID, a EUR 23 million project under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research, technological development, and demonstration and BBI LIGNOFLAG, a EUR 24.7 million project within the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
At full capacity, the plant will process around 250 000 tonnes of wheat and other cereal straw sourced from local farmers to produce 50 000 tonnes of cellulosic ethanol annually. By-products from the process, lignin, will be used for the generation of renewable energy in a combined heat and power (CHP) plant with the goal of making the plant independent from fossil energy sources.
The resulting cellulosic ethanol will be an advanced biofuel that is practically carbon-neutral and, Clariant says, the flagship plant “testifies to the competitive viability and sustainability” of the sunliquid technology on an industrial scale. At the same time, the plant fulfils an important function as a commercial reference facility for the worldwide marketing of sunliquid technology licenses.
Feedstock supply and logistics
The decision to invest in Romania was announced in November 2017 and according to Clariant, the decision in favour of Craiova was due partly to the existence of a secure regional supply of feedstock and partly to the region’s existing logistics and industrial infrastructure – for instance access to railway siding.
Construction of the plant is anticipated to provide a whole range of benefits for the surrounding region. It will allow local farmers to industrially market straw for the first time, which was previously practically an unutilized agricultural residue. Although regulated, illicit stubble burning is still widely practiced causing air quality issues.
During the construction phase of the new plant, several hundred construction workers will be employed from locally based companies wherever possible. After completion, the plant is expected to provide around 300 permanent jobs in supporting industries serving the site, and in the transportation and storage of the feedstock.
Expected to operate 24/7 the plant itself will employ a workforce of between 100 and 120. Clariant plans to recruit its workforce locally, and provide training in Germany, both in its own laboratories in Planegg near Munich and at the pre-commercial sunliquid plant in Straubing, Bavaria.
sunliquid – a sunshine bio-based story
On paper and in Straubing, Clariant’s sunliquid cellulosic ethanol technology is a sunshine story. Derived from agricultural residues such as wheat straw and corn stover supplied by farmers, it is a sustainable and practically carbon-neutral advanced biofuel.
The straw is first converted into cellulosic sugars followed by fermentation to produce cellulosic ethanol. By using plant residues, cellulosic ethanol can extend the current production of biofuels in an existing conventional grain ethanol plant to new feedstock and contributes to optimizing the efficiency and sustainability of biofuels.
The sunliquid technology is a fully integrated process design built on established process technology. Innovative technology features such as chemical-free pretreatment, the integrated production of feedstock-and process-specific enzymes, and simultaneous C5 and C6 sugar fermentation ensure optimum cost-effectiveness whereas the lignin if used as fuel, enables near renewable energy self-sufficiency
However, it is also worth keeping in mind that although cellulosic ethanol for the transportation market is the end-game for the Podari project, the cellulosic sugars and lignin alone may have a potential use in the bio-based chemicals sector, an area Clariant as a group is undoubtedly very familiar with.
Thus it is not a stretch to suggest that Clariant may have considered licensing a “semi-integrated” option for the straw to cellulosic sugars and lignin separation process only. Time will tell how much of a sunshine story sunliquid can be or if there are unforeseen clouds waiting to appear on the horizon.